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March 13, 2014
Viewpoints: Renewed focus on improving development in early childhood

Headstart.JPG(March 13 - By George Halvorson, Special to The Bee)

It is up to us to take important steps to change the life path for millions of children. 2014 has the potential to be a year of real progress for California youths' early learning and development. It has been a long time coming, but the time is now and we need to do the right thing for our children and do it well.

Fifteen years ago voters in our state made history by establishing First 5 California, recognizing a need to focus on improving the experiences and outcomes of children from birth to age 5. Since then, a variety of forces have come together to bring new science and new insights to this critical issue.

First 5 California was established on the basis of extensive research in brain development that demonstrated how a child's emotional, physical and intellectual environment has a profound impact on how the brain is organized in the first five years of life.

We originally thought that all first years of life were equally important for neural connectivity development. We now know that the first three years are the most important years for several essential areas of brain development.

Ninety percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of a child's life. We now know that 82 percent of that development actually occurs by age 3.

In a child's first years, 700 new neural connections are formed each minute you spend talking, reading or singing to your child. These are the connections that build brain architecture - the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior and health depend.

Studies have shown that by the time children enter kindergarten, their brains are largely formed in ways that will affect the rest of their lives, and a number of studies have shown that the vast majority of children who are behind in kindergarten will never catch up.

Those children who fall behind have a higher rate of teen pregnancy, incarceration and dropping out of school. This is an unfair burden to impose on a 5-year-old. We can and should do better.

From the state Capitol to the White House, policymakers who know the current science are promoting real investments in one key element to early learning and development: exponential expansion to prekindergarten.

As policymakers have done this, educators, business leaders, and health and children's advocates have rightly and loudly applauded.

With the highest population of young children in the nation, California is poised to take the lead in promoting policies that will give babies and toddlers the strongest possible foundations for success.

For our part, First 5 California research found that most parents did not know the new science and the great opportunity that the first years present for each child. Because of this, First 5 California has just launched an exciting new campaign to encourage parents and caregivers to take the simple but effective steps of talking, reading and singing to their children in order to spur increased brain development in their children in the critical early years.

At a news conference in the Capitol this week, we were joined by legislators from both houses.

First 5 California introduced a fully integrated outreach campaign that includes a series of TV and radio ads, digital content, and a new parent website, all geared toward increasing parent and caregiver interactions that will stimulate brain development in the first years of a child's life.

For example, in one of our new commercials, the announcer states, "The moment babies are born their brains are forming the connections that determine how they learn, think and grow.

"Talk and read to your children from day one. Their brains are developing with your every word. It's free and easy and something you can do any time. Talk. Read. Sing."

While there is much to celebrate in First 5 California's successes over the past 15 years, there is still much more to be done. We must remain steadfast in our commitment and insistence that all of California's children deserve the best possible start in life.

Our results have clearly been positive - but only for those we reach.

Now is the time for us to expand our efforts to reach more parents and caregivers of children up to age 5.

Now is the time to keep the pressure on Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to ensure that promising overtures that have been made this year regarding early childhood education and development come to fruition - and do so in time to shape as many lives as possible.

George Halvorson is the chairman of the First 5 California Children and Families Commission. Halvorson served as chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente since 2002 until his retirement from that post in December.